Early placer miners in California discovered that the more gravel they could process, the more gold they were likely to find. Instead of working with pans, sluice boxes, long toms, and rockers, miners collaborated to find ways to process larger quantities of gravel more rapidly. Hydraulic mining became the largest-scale, and most devastating, form of placer mining. Water was redirected into an ever-narrowing channel, through a large canvas hose, and out through a giant iron nozzle, called a "monitor." The extremely high pressure stream was used to wash entire hillsides through enormous sluices.

By the early 1860s, while hydraulic mining was at its height, small-scale placer mining had largely exhausted the rich surface placers, and the mining industry turned to hard rock (called quartz mining in California) or hydraulic mining, which required larger organizations and much more capital. By the mid-1880s, it is estimated that 11 million ounces of gold (worth approximately US$7.5 billion at mid-2006 prices) had been recovered by hydraulic mining in the California Gold Rush.

[edit] Environmental effects

A man leans over a wooden sluice. Rocks line the outside of the wood boards that create the sluice.

While generating millions of dollars in tax revenues for the state and supporting a large population of miners in the mountains, hydraulic mining had a devastating effect on riparian environments and agricultural systems in California. Millions of tons of earth and water were delivered to mountain streams that fed rivers flowing into the Sacramento Valley. Once the rivers reached the relatively flat valley, the water slowed, the rivers widened, and the sediment was deposited in the floodplains and river beds causing them to rise, shift to new channels, and overflow their banks, causing major flooding, especially during the spring melt.

Cities and towns in the Sacramento Valley experienced an increasing number of devastating floods, while the rising riverbeds made navigation on the rivers increasingly difficult. Perhaps no other city experienced the boon and the bane of gold mining as much as Marysville. Situated at the confluence of the Yuba and Feather rivers, Marysville was the final "jumping off" point for miners heading to the northern foothills to seek their fortune. Steamboats from San Francisco, carrying miners and supplies, navigated up the Sacramento River, then the Feather River to Marysville where they would unload their passengers and cargo. Marysville eventually constructed a complex levee system to protect the city from floods and sediment. Hydraulic mining greatly exacerbated the problem of flooding in Marysville and shoaled the waters of the Feather River so severely that few steamboats could navigate from Sacramento to the Marysville docks.

The spectacular eroded landscape left at the site of hydraulic mining can be viewed at Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park in Nevada County, California.[5] A similar landscape can be seen at Las Médulas in northern Spain, where Roman engineers ground sluiced the rich gold alluvial deposits of the river Sil. Pliny the Elder mentions in his Naturalis Historia that Spain had encroached on the sea and local lakes as a result of ground sluicing operations.

[edit] Legal ramifications

Vast areas of farmland in the Sacramento Valley were deeply buried by the mining sediment. Frequently devastated by flood waters, farmers demanded an end to hydraulic mining. In the most renowned legal fight of farmers against miners, the farmers sued the hydraulic mining operations and the landmark case of Edwards Woodruff v. North Bloomfield Mining and Gravel Company made its way to the United States District Court in San Francisco where Judge Lorenzo Sawyer decided in favor of the farmers in 1884, declaring that hydraulic mining was “a public and private nuisance” and enjoining its operation in areas tributary to navigable streams and rivers. Hydraulic mining was recommenced after 1893 when the United States Congress passed the Camminetti Act which allowed such mining if sediment detention structures were constructed. This led to a number of operations above brush dams and log crib dams. Most of the water-delivery infrastructure had been destroyed by an 1891 flood, so this later stage of mining was carried on at a much smaller scale in California.

Copyright © 2006-21 Claud "Sonny" Rouch, all rights reserved. Website by OACYS Technology. Cover photo by Roberts Engineering.